Monday, March 09, 2009

This Will Be A Home Study Course

Via the Where Blog , comes this post, "Introducing the New Urbanism," which aims to provide a basic reading list introducing the concept. I've copied below the top five here directly from the post, all, I think, good reads, though I don't know number two at all, and am only vaguely acquainted with number five. "Urbanism," of course, is a very restrictive concept, and [yet ?] I find myself wondering how the ideas in these books might intersect with the ideas from places like Complete Streets, the burgeoning discussion on Carbon Trace of what one means by "bike culture," and the idea of the "1 Mile Solution," also found there. Cities and towns tend to get conflated in discussions of urbanism, new and old, and suburbs and exurbs become really, really annoying places that many theorists would seek to banish, connect, or reconstruct (so that they are cities or towns). But I digress a tad. Let's say that I'm waiting for the New Oppidism (see why it will never catch on ? Because the Latin word for town, oppidum, does not make a pretty word), as distinct from the NU. There is a very thoughtful secondary list in this post that includes some interesting and/or classic picks, such as Mumford's The Culture of Cities (1938) which opened up the conceptual framework for many other writers, and Will Self's oddity, Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place (2007). I'll be working my way through the secondary list for some time to come. Three other books came to mind, though only one of them has to do with urbanism qua urbs: A Pattern Language (1977), by Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein, a book that has had a growing influence on, among other things, small (not micro) house design (see Susanka's The Not So Big House); the children's book, out just last month, beautiful graphics (I cannot bring myself to say "graphic children's book"), My First Book of Urban Planning," by CJ Hughes; and, for extremely un-thought out reasons, what we call a gut feeling, DeLillo's Underworld, whose barren landscapes strewn with the refuse of human existence (Fresh Kills landfill and the airplane grave yard ---"The Boneyard" in Tuscon, AZ are prominent) and sly cuff, with "under," at the "sub" of suburbia ought to haunt any new urbanist. Only the second is "about" urbanism, but it would be fun to add them to the list. For those whose interest in vehicle graveyards has now been piqued, try this post on Mental Floss.

Here, finally, is the list from The Where Blog:
The Top 5

1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961). At about 450 pages, “concise” is probably not the most apt description of this book. But, as this is the single best written, most accessible, most compelling book I’ve ever read about cities, I’m willing to forsake the concision criterion even in my first recommendation. If you want to know what can make cities pleasant, safe and interesting places to live, read this book. If you want to read one of the best non-fiction prose stylists of our time, read this book. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. As one Where reader put it: “It’s a great book for explaining why we care about all of this.”

2. The Option of Urbanism by Christopher Leinberger (2007). While not as fun to read as The Death and Life of Great American Cities or The Geography of Nowhere (see below), this slender volume briskly highlights difference between drivable sub-urban development and walkable urban development, and does a good job of explaining the benefits of walkable city neighborhoods. It’s good primer on the basics of density, zoning and the hidden subsidies fueling drivable sub-urban development.

3. The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler (1993). This book is an exploration—and excoriation—of the rise of suburbia and sprawl. It also explains how the more traditional patterns and places of city life and country life are superior to the “geography of nowhere.” Accessible and ferocious.

4. Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz, with Norman Mintz (1998). According to a Where reader, this book is “in the spirit of Jacobs” and discusses “how existing cities can be improved with citizen participation in contrast to destructive master plans.” The book is filled with lots of specific ideas about how to improve downtown areas, all of them lavishly illustrated with real life examples from successful efforts in dozens of cities.

5. How Cities Work by Alex Marshall (2000). Squarely aimed at the lay person, this book seeks to discover what forces shape places and cities—and finds that one of the most powerful forces is political choices, particularly those having to do with transportation policy. A Where reader gave this recommendation: “It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it’s a good snack, possibly the kind that could interest a person in a larger meal.”
Image taken from the review of My First Book of Urban Planning, from which the NYTimes reprinted the image. The NYTimes review is linked to the title above.


Steph Mineart said...

I'll sign up for this home study course! This has been a subject burgeoning at the base of my brain for awhile.

I've had Jane Jacob's book on my wish list for some time. I need an excuse to pull that trigger, and the others on the list sound great as well.

I have at hand already A Pattern Language, and another book that has been languishing on my shelf for several years is "Cities in Civilization" by Peter Hall - focusing on cities that have had created "golden ages" of influential cultural creativity - think Florence in 1400-1500, or Paris in 1870-1910, and examining what was unique about those urban settings that created the crucible for that dynamic creativeness.

Thanks for another post that sparks thought!

Cordelia said...

Thank you, Steph. It's about time I returned the favor and offered something to you. I've enjoyed so many entries on your blog. I'd remembered that you'd mentioned A Pattern Language and had meant to point that out here.